Author: Jason Reed

Obesity is America’s next pandemic

But public health authorities are asleep at the wheel

Obesity is out of control. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 42 percent of Americans have reported undesired weight gain. Among children, the situation is even more dire, with 15.4 percent of those aged 2 to 17 reportedly obese by the end of 2020, up from 13.7 percent the year before.

These aren’t just abstract statistics. The U.S. has a huge shortfall in life expectancy compared to other developed countries, translating into around 400,000 excess deaths per year. When it comes to the difference between the U.S. and other similarly wealthy countries, 55 percent of America’s public health problems can be traced back to obesity.

Obesity is the next pandemic.

And if the U.S. is very unlucky, politicians will combat the new pandemic the same way they did the old, with sweeping authoritarian bans. Newsflash: A strong government response to obesity hasn’t worked so far, and it won’t work today.

The United Kingdom offers a troubling glimpse into the kinds of policies overactive American politicians might soon try to push through. Britain is led by a nominally Conservative prime minister in Boris Johnson, who calls himself libertarian and won his office by pledging to roll back the “continuing creep of the nanny state” — but you wouldn’t know it from his actions.

In reality, in recent years, the British government has unleashed an avalanche of new taxes and regulations aimed at making Britain slimmer. All have comprehensively failed — the U.K.’s obesity rates are higher than ever, with excess body fat responsible for more deaths than smoking every year since 2014 and over a million hospital admission for obesity-related treatment in England in the year leading up to the pandemic.

The state’s rampant interventionism in this area hasn’t made a dent, and there is no reason to think the result would be any different on the other side of the pond. In the U.K., a regressive sugar tax on soft drinks remains in place (despite Boris Johnson previously promising to scrap it) achieving nothing besides making the weekly shopping trip more expensive for those who can least afford it. There’s also a bizarre £100 million ($142 million) taxpayer-funded scheme which will supposedly solve Britain’s obesity crisis by bribing people to exercise.

The headline act, though, is an appalling move to ban advertising for ‘junk food’ before 9 p.m. on television and at all times online. The premise, proposed with great insistence by bankrupt celebrity chefs and now seemingly adopted by the government, is that helpless children are being bombarded with ads for unhealthy food online and therefore that the malevolent, profit-hungry advertising industry is single-handedly responsible for the national obesity crisis.

Even if that were the case, an advertising ban would be a wildly inappropriate policy response. Government analysis of the policy — not a hit job from a skeptical think tank, but research from the very same people who are insisting that this ad ban is vital — found that it will remove an average of 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day.

For context, that is roughly the equivalent of 0.3 grams of candy, or a little under six peas. The British government is unwavering in its willingness to hamstring an entire industry, even as the world inches towards a period of post-pandemic economic recovery, in order to effect an impossibly miniscule change in children’s diets, not to mention the policy’s disastrous implications for free enterprise and individual liberty.

America: Learn from Britain’s mistakes. Obesity is the next pandemic, but public health authorities who claim to be acting in our best interests have been asleep at the wheel for far too long. All over the world, bureaucrats have been peddling tired 20th-century ideas to deal with 21st-century problems and the U.S. is next in line. Public health is too important to leave up to an outdated and out-of-touch medical-industrial complex which is more interested in its virtue-signaling echo chambers than helping the vulnerable or achieving any real results.

Originally published here.

Oxfordshire’s plan to become smoke free is yet another example of state overreach

In February of last year, Ansaf Azhar, the director of public health for Oxfordshire county council, unveiled the “Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy”. Azhar had decided that the proportion of people living in Oxfordshire who smoke – 12 per cent – was too high and needed to be slashed. When fewer than five per cent of people smoke, an area can be considered “smoke free”. Azhar made it his mission to make Oxfordshire England’s first smoke-free county.

The Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy was signed offby the county council in principle in May last year. You would be forgiven for thinking that since then, the director of public health at a local authority might have had more pressing matters to attend to than smoking. But Azhar has apparently continued his crusade against cigarettes undeterred.

He has now horrified right-thinking people up and down the country by declaring the council’s intention to ban smoking for outdoor hospitality. Although the plan currently lacks an implementation timetable or any other firm commitment, the fact that it is part of the plan at all says some very worrying things about the direction we’re heading in.

In the new world order of the nanny state, everything can be neatly categorised into good and bad. Everything is black and white – it’s all either vital or morally reprehensible. Once it is accepted that an activity is objectively “bad”, who could possibly oppose its being banned?

Of course, the real world, outside the offices of “directors of public health”, is rather different. It is not all black and white. There are lots of shades of grey. But nuance and freedom of choice aren’t all that fashionable these days.

Unfortunately for smokers, cigarettes have been deemed a social evil. Their existence is so objectively awful that the reasoning behind drastic measures to wipe them from the face of the earth doesn’t even need justifying. The result is that ludicrous policy proposals like the Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy can be signed off and made reality with startlingly little scrutiny from those we elect to represent us and safeguard our civil liberties.

If you can bear it, I recommend a cursory read of the offending document, for novelty value if nothing else. It talks not of blanket bans, sweeping restrictions and ill-thought-out curbs on our freedoms, but instead of “creating smoke free environments”, as though we are being given a gift of something new to enjoy and ought to be grateful.

Most troubling is the way the document’s authors seem to be in complete denial that they are wielding the tools of the state at all. They write: “The interventions required to successfully de-normalise smoking and achieve a smoke free Oxfordshire may be considered as “nanny statist” or an assault on personal choice by some people. The whole system approach to make smoking less visible is not banning the choice of people who choose to smoke. It aims to create smoke free environments in more places in our communities, protecting the free choice of the nine out of ten residents of Oxfordshire who choose not to smoke.”

Oh, you thought our harsh new restrictions on what you can and can’t do in public were an assault on your freedom, did you? Don’t worry – if you look carefully, you’ll find that bans on common activities actually give you more freedom, not less.

The counter-factual logic behind the introduction of new regulations in the name of “public health” knows no bounds. If the council actually wanted to make Oxfordshire healthier, it would see that the answer is not to put yet more unnecessary strain on the hospitality industry at this impossibly difficult time.

Instead, the council should throw all its efforts behind supporting vaping as an alternative to smoking. More than half of Britain’s e-cigarette users – around 1.7 million people – are former smokers. Those nine out of ten Oxfordshire residents who don’t smoke won’t have to worry about any health risks from second-hand e-cigarette vapour. Even Public Health England concedes – with a great deal of reluctance – that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking.

And yet, in the 24-page Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy, there is not a single mention of vaping, the most effective instrument for tobacco control we have. That begs the question: what do the public health authorities actually want, if it is not to make people healthier? When they flagrantly eschew proven harm reduction tools in favour of gratuitous centralised policy interventions, it becomes impossible to sympathise with their motives.

This problem stretches much further than Oxfordshire. In fact, the county is only a few years ahead of national public health outcomes. Its strategy mimics that of Public Health England, which is working towards Matt Hancock’s target of making England smoke-free by 2030.

The attack on effective harm reduction methods and the swing towards a new age of nanny statism comes from the very top. Last week, the World Health Organisation honoured the health minister of India for his work on “tobacco control” which notably includes banning vaping. A new APPG, chaired by Mark Pawsey, the Conservative MP, seeks to bring to a halt the WHO’s pernicious influence in areas like this. That task becomes more difficult with each passing day.

Originally published here.

Boris Johnson’s interventionist obesity strategy will fail. We need more choice, not less to slim down

Obesity is on the rise like never before. More than one in four people in the UK are now obese, one of the driving forces behind the mortality rate from Covid. In the year leading up to the pandemic, more than a million people were admitted to hospital for obesity-related treatment in England.

Record hospitalisations should be a wake-up call. Public health authorities on both an international and national level have failed to front up to the sheer scale of the challenge. Public Health England and the World Health Organisation are both indoctrinated with interventionist tunnel vision. For them, fighting obesity is banning things, taxing them out of existence, trying to manipulate consumers with intrusive campaigns and attempting to shame them into making “better decisions”. 

Those charged with addressing public health issues are reading from the same tired hymn sheet of failed policies. They are trotting out twentieth-century ideas to deal with twenty-first-century problems and their failures have tragic consequences on an enormous scale.

The headline act in this appalling show is the government’s plan to ban junk food ads. The policy looks set to go ahead after being included in the Queen’s Speech, despite extensive campaigns calling attention to the problems with an overly intrusive approach, for the advertising industry and everyone else.

My mother, a working-class, immigrant single parent, runs a small baking business out of her kitchen. Under the mad ad ban plan, my mum posting pictures of her cakes on Instagram will become illegal. And for what? The government’s own analysis of the policy found that it will remove an average of 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – roughly half a Smartie.

When asked about the case of a bakery with an Instagram account, the prime minister’s spokesperson was unable to offer any reassurances. A government source quoted in the Sunday Times earlier this year said: “there will be caveats – this is not aimed at small companies advertising home-made cakes online. It is aimed at the food giants.” It remains unclear how a blanket ban on a certain type of advertising can be legally targeted at some companies and not others.

The solution to the obesity crisis lies in more freedom of choice, not less. Even those evil food giants are responding to public pressure, keen to be seen making an effort in this area. McDonald’s, for instance, is providing five million hours of football training across the UK. Even Britain’s pubs play an important role, contributing more than £40 million every year to grassroots sports.

When people voice their concern en masse about a particular issue, private actors go out of their way to make themselves useful and do something about it. Countless companies are voluntarily investing in healthy lifestyle schemes or cutting back their own contributions to obesity. Tesco, for example, has laid out an ambitious plan to boost the proportion of its food sales which is made up of healthy products to 65 per cent, setting an example for the rest of the industry as the market shifts.

Attempts to centralise responses to public health crises in government and concentrate responsibility in Whitehall fail consistently. Tesco’s radical new agenda was not motivated by public health bureaucrats, but instead by demands from its own shareholders and pressure from competitors including Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer. While Public Health England is cracking down on Marmite ads and Instagram pictures of cupcakes, the group of people arguably doing more than anyone else to make Britain healthier are private corporate investors.

Companies and consumer choice are our allies, not our enemies, in the fight against obesity. Rather than trying to hold back the tide, let’s harness the power of the market to tackle obesity.

Originally published here.

Why Covid lockdown might be bad for our dental health – and the unlikely solution

By now, we are all well-versed in the health problems associated with Covid-19. But the knock-on effects in other areas of healthcare are only beginning to become clear more than a year after lockdown became the new normality. From difficulties faced by cancer patients to the mental health consequences of being confined to our homes, the fallout from the pandemic has been deeply harmful in a whole range of areas.

But one of those areas has been largely neglected so far. The effects of Covid and lockdown on our dental health have been almost entirely absent from the public forum. Thanks to the cancellation of practically all non-emergency healthcare in order to focus finite resources on fighting coronavirus, the normal routine of regular check-ups and quick diagnoses has disappeared, which could have a very serious effect in the longer term.

As a result, a vast array of minor oral health conditions have probably gone unnoticed in the last year. They have therefore been allowed to fester and when they are eventually discovered once normal healthcare service has resumed and they have to be treated, much more serious and extensive procedures might be required.

The problem goes far beyond your teeth. Countless serious medical conditions start in the mouth and are first picked up on by dentists. Periodontitis, for instance, is a bacterial inflammation of the gum tissue which can cause bleeding. If left untreated, periodontitis can go on to cause other serious issues in a domino effect when that bacteria contaminates the bloodstream. Heart valve infections, abscesses and even life-threatening sepsis, which sometimes causes damage to multiple organ systems, can all come about because of an unaddressed problem in the gums.

Present this information to a politician – especially one in the current government – and their response would be quite predictable. On health policy, Boris Johnson’s nominally Conservative government has embraced the interventionist doctrine of the nanny state. Tax this, ban that. From advertising restrictions to sin taxes, ministers’ instinct when they identify what they deem to be a public health problems seems to be to interfere.

But the hidden dental health pandemic is a perfect example of why the free market, not the state, is best placed to tackle these kinds of problems. Cutting-edge scientific research is suggesting that the simple act of chewing can single-handedly solve a great deal of oral health problems, meaning that a product as simple and innocuous as sugar-free chewing gum might be a silver bullet to this whole category of issues.

When you chew, you produce saliva, which has myriad positive consequences including rebalancing the pH in your mouth and churning out countless healthy minerals like calcium and phosphate ions. Chewing sugar-free gum has other positive effects, too, from helping people quit smoking to reducing appetite, resulting in less snacking and therefore weight loss.

In other words, pioneering research is showing us that accessible, everyday products which are already on the market can address underlying public health concerns, without the disadvantages of a clattering intervention from the state.

The government likes to talk up post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ as a world leader in scientific research. If that is to be the case, it’s time to abandon the nanny state mindset and allow the free market – and our world-class universities and research institutes – to take up their rightful place on the front line of any and all public health battles. In the case of dental health, that is already happening – let’s just hope the government don’t take it upon themselves to interfere.

Originally published here.

We don’t need State meddling in the digital marketplace

Earlier this month, the Government launched a new regulator called the Digital Markets Unit, a quango designed to introduce new checks and balances to the wide-ranging activities of tech giants like Facebook and Google. It is the Government’s answer to calls from around the world to ‘rein in’ big tech. The body’s launch had been trailed for several months, but it’s still unclear exactly what its parameters or purpose will be.

Some of the rhetoric around the DMU has been positive. The Government’s press release describes it as ‘pro-competition’, which is encouraging. The spin around the DMU launch also places an emphasis on the need to ‘spur development of digital services and lower prices for consumers’.

That all sounds very positive – if it turns out to be true. A consumer-focused approach which seeks more competition, not less, would indeed be a boon for the technology industry and would be a good thing for all of us. Only time will tell whether the Government bears out this consumer-centric rhetoric in the policy of the DMU, or whether it slips into that trap to which state bodies are so often vulnerable, of erring on the side of gratuitous intervention in the market.

There does appear to be some degree of appetite within government for a more intrusive regime which would be highly damaging, both to the companies involved (and therefore the UK economy as a whole) and everyday users of online services like you and I. Health Secretary Matt Hancock, for instance,applauded the Australian government for its pioneering new law forcing online platforms like Facebook and Google to pay for news content.

That move was incredibly damaging in Australia and repeating it in Britain would be a catastrophic mistake. Never before has anyone had to pay a content producer in order to a host a link on their platform. In fact, even a rudimentary understanding of how the online marketplace works makes it clear that the dynamic is the other way around – people fork out huge sums for digital advertising packages, meaning they pay in order to put their links on more people’s screens.

The Australian government’s decision, then, to intervene arbitrarily in the market and force Facebook and Google to pay news outlets in order host their content did nothing for the user or the free market. All it achieved was moving some money from Mark Zuckerberg’s pocket into Rupert Murdoch’s. Matt Hancock’s strident approval of that policy – for which no one, not even the Australian government which implemented it, seems able to provide a coherent defence – is a bad sign.

Factions and frontiers are beginning to form within the Government and the Conservative Party more broadly on this. Even within Cabinet, dividing lines are starting to emerge between figures like Hancock, who seem to favour more intervention from the Government, and others like Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and  Digital, Culture, Media and Sport secretary Oliver Dowden who – so far at least – appear to be on the side of the free market and of the belief that the DMU should aid competition, not seek to restructure it from the ground up.

Only time will tell which side wins out in the end. The DMU could yet be a hero or a villain. We can only hope that the Government will keep the consumer front and centre in their minds when crafting their technology policy.

Originally published here.

Like Greta Thunberg, the WHO values virtue-signaling over policy outcomes

Teenage climate protester Greta Thunberg seems to have grown bored of skipping school to hold up placards about the death of the planet. Last week, she found a new pet cause: “vaccine equity.” Addressing “governments, vaccine developers, and the world,” she joined forces with the World Health Organization to blast “rich countries” for offering their populations too many vaccine doses.

You might not think that the WHO and an 18-year-old Swedish eco-truant would have a great deal in common, but Thunberg and the WHO do share one passion: virtue-signaling. Both have a strong track record of issuing diktats to sovereign governments around the world and telling elected politicians what to do.

In Thunberg’s case, that led to the rise of the hard-left Extinction Rebellion group and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, which has just been revived. In the case of the WHO, which is funded by nearly $5 billion over two years to safeguard our health, an unrelenting focus on virtue-signaling led to an appalling negligence of vital pandemic preparations, leading to the deaths of more than 3 million people from the coronavirus.

But the problems with the WHO began long before the first case of the coronavirus was detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Most fundamentally, it has lost sight of its purpose. It has enlarged its operations far beyond the reason it was created. For decades, the WHO has been quietly expanding its responsibility to include much more than health emergencies. It now routinely wastes time and money by interfering in domestic politics through regulatory interventions designed to change the way people live their lives.

When it should have been focusing on communicable diseases, the WHO was instead spending its time and vast resources campaigning on lifestyle issues — and flagrantly undermining the sovereignty of national governments in the process. From tobacco taxes to alcohol laws, from sugar and salt taxes to vaping restrictions, the WHO seems to greatly enjoy lecturing us about everyday indulgences and making it harder for us to access products we want.

The default position of statist bureaucrats who run unaccountable international governing bodies such as the WHO is to deny people the right to manage their own health and lifestyle, calling for effective harm reduction products to be banned and instead insisting on authoritarian measures such as mandatory health warnings, prohibition legislation, advertising bans, and excise taxes.

Half the time, the arbitrary positions adopted by the WHO (“you drink too much,” “salt is bad for you”) are factually incorrect. Take e-cigarettes, for example. Last year, the WHO laid the groundwork for its new vaping policy strategy with a briefing on its website, along with a splash of publicity. The problem was that the briefing seemed to contain a plethora of basic scientific errors. It was panned by experts in the field, leading the WHO to edit it quietly without telling anyone.

Even putting apparent scientific inaccuracies to one side, where does the WHO derive the legitimacy to tell us how to live our lives? Perhaps more importantly, what gives it the right to instruct democratic governments on domestic politics? Unlike Thunberg, the WHO cannot be dismissed with a photo opportunity or two. It demands action, even when it has no right to do so.

When President Donald Trump moved to withdraw the United States from the WHO last year, there was a great deal of squealing and squawking from people who apparently believe that the WHO provides citizens and governments with an invaluable service. New Jersey Democrat Sen. Bob Mendez of the Foreign Relations Committee said at the time that distancing from the WHO “leaves Americans sick and America alone.”

Besides cozying up to the Chinese Communist Party, it is unclear what service the WHO provides to America. Its leadership on COVID-19 has been nonexistent; the tragic 3 million deaths are evidence of that. Its interventions against harm-reduction policies are actively damaging to public health outcomes. If it is to justify its funding, the WHO must dispense with the Greta-esque virtue-signaling and instead refocus on positive health outcomes, especially on communicable diseases, which is where international guidance is truly needed.

Originally published here.

After Covid disaster surely game’s up for pitiable World Health Organizaton COMMENT

SINCE the first case of Covid was detected in Wuhan in December 2019, the coronavirus has infected more than 130 million people across the world, killing almost three million.

Many thousands of words have been written about the failures of local health authorities like Public Health England in preparing us for a pandemic, but perhaps the most important body of all has still not been properly held to account: the World Health Organization. Before 2020, most Brits probably didn’t know very much, if anything, about the WHO. It’s an arm of the United Nations, like the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization, spending most of its time working away in the background to safeguard against health emergencies, leaving the rest of us to get on with our lives.

Except, of course, as we have now learned, the WHO was wilfully neglecting its duties and generally doing a terrible job, at enormous cost.

The WHO was wildly unprepared for the pandemic – with tragic consequences – because it spent much of its time playing politics rather than serving its purpose.

It failed to do any of the things it should have done when the virus first broke out, even those as fundamental as being transparent about what was going on.

It wasted valuable time before declaring a pandemic. It cosied up to China rather than tracing the origin of the virus. It issued actively harmful advice against masks.

Put simply, it is hard to imagine how a well-funded body charged with protecting people’s health could possibly have performed any worse.

Even putting aside its appallingly close political relationship with the dictatorial, genocidal Chinese Communist Party, the WHO failed to perform its most basic function, tripping up at every hurdle.

If the world had been better prepared, perhaps Covid would not have resulted in the unnecessary deaths of millions of people.

The WHO has form when it comes to mishandling epidemics. During the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, and again during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, it came in for widespread criticism.

One of the factors singled out as a cause of its mismanagement of these crises was an aversion to offending member states, in exactly the same way that it is now loath to offend China.

There’s no reason why these awful failures should be the new normal. In the 20th century, the WHO was effectively responsible for eradicating smallpox. But since then, things seem to have gone drastically downhill.

The WHO has patently failed to adequately address the scourge of anti-vaxxers leading to diseases like measles, which were all but eradicated, but which are now making a comeback around the world.

The WHO also received widespread criticism from animal conservation groups for recognising traditional Chinese medicine in its international guidelines after lobbying by Beijing, despite its role in driving the illegal trade and poaching of endangered species including pangolins and tigers — a trade that might ironically have contributed to the coronavirus’s outbreak in the first place.

The problems with the WHO run deep. It should not have taken a once-in-a-generation health disaster to expose them.

It’s time to ask some existential and probing questions. What is the WHO? What is it for? Where are its vast funds coming from? At the moment, it is trying to pretend it is both a humble, do-gooder charity which just has our best interests at heart and an all-powerful supranational organisation. It wants to be the undisputed centre of power for healthcare around the world, but without ever being held accountable for its actions. If the WHO is a charity, it should not be playing politics and cosying up to dictatorial regimes. If it’s not a charity, it must be subject to proper democratic oversight.

The WHO has not expressed any hint of remorse over its failures. There is no reason to think it is going to voluntarily change the way it operates. It’s high time for the rest of us to stand up to it and demand some answers.

Originally published here.

Obesity has made Covid deaths worse – but let’s not learn the wrong lessons

Whichever way you look at it, obesity is on the rise in Britain. By 2018, the proportion of British adults classified as obese had reached 28 per cent. Deaths attributed to obesity and excess body fat are climbing with each year that passes.

In fact, a recent study went so far as to claim that obesity is now responsible for more deaths than smoking. Smoking-related deaths have been falling in recent years and as of 2017, 23 per cent of deaths were linked to obesity, versus just 19 per cent for smoking.

As we know all too well by now, this seems to have contributed to the UK’s disproportionately high Covid-19 death toll. Obesity is one of the key coronavirus risk factors identified by the NHS early on in the pandemic, for good reason. Even setting aside other risk factors like diabetes and heart disease, from the data we have so far, obesityappears to have an additional effect of its own.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, public health nannies have leapt on these facts to push their extraordinarily damaging political agenda. From sugar taxes to food advertising restrictions, this Conservative government looks as though it has been well and truly conquered by those who want to see enforced plain packaging on crisps and chocolates and calorie counts on pints in pubs.

That might sound like hyperbole – but it isn’t. Enforced calorie counts are on the agenda, according to documents leaked to the Sun. And the idea of plain packaging for unhealthy foods, like we already have on cigarettes, is a real, straight-faced proposal from the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-wing think tank, and has been publicly endorsed by the nannies-in-chief at Public Health England.

Sugar might well be the new tobacco – and these campaigners want to see us repeat all the harmful mistakes that were made when trying to regulate smoking out of existence.

Sadly, the fact that this proposal comes from the left doesn’t mean that we don’t have to worry about it becoming a reality under a Tory government. Just a few years ago, those same groups of fringe lobbyists were the only ones campaigning for advertising bans on junk food and taxes on soft drinks – but now, ad bans have been embraced as government policy and the sugar tax is already in force.

Neither of those policies work, and both have disastrous side-effects. The so-called “sin taxes” are ineffective – the evidence shows that when confronted with taxes on sugary drinks, people either pay the inflated prices, switch to other high-sugar, high-calorie options like fruit juices, or buy cheaper own-brand soft drinks to offset the price difference.

In other words, they don’t have an impact on the amount of calories people consume – as we can see from the fact that obesity rates continue to climb.

These regressive taxes also make the poor poorer. Analysis has consistently shown that making essential items like food and drinks more expensive hurts the poor more than anyone else.

Advertising restrictions have similar problems. The government’s ad ban policy – whichappears to have been axed at the eleventh hour, but given the lack of official confirmation, could rear its head again any second – is to restrict advertising of what it deems to be “unhealthy foods”. The immediate issue with that is that the government’s definition of unhealthy foods which cause obesity and must be restricted apparently includes honey, yoghurt, mustard and tinned fruit.

Even more damningly, the government’s own analysis of its policy, which it stuck by for many months despite universal industry outcry, concludes that it would remove an average of 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day. For context, that is the equivalent of roughly half a Smartie. And that’s to say nothing of the immense cost of hamstringing the advertising industry, precisely when we are relying on private sector growth to revive the post-Covid economic recovery.

Government interventions are always going to be short-sighted and ineffectual by their nature. We should not ignore obesity – but the way we confront it must allow people to retain control over their own lives. Rather than taxing or regulating obesity in the hope that it goes away, government policy should create an environment which can facilitate weight management.

For instance, recent research found that a diabetes drug can do wonders for weight loss. People who took semaglutide suddenly found the pounds dropping off, with many losing 15 per cent of their bodyweight. 

And health innovation goes far beyond the lab and the GP surgery. Studies have, shown, for instance, that the simple act of chewing gum can help people lose weight. “Chewing gum had a dual effect on appetite,” said researchers at the University of Liverpool and Glasgow Caledonian University. “It reduces both the subjective sensations associated with eating and the amount of food eaten during a snack… leading to an 8.2 per cent decrease in appetite for sweet and salty snacks.”

Instead of giving public health nannies free rein to govern our diets and shopping habits, the government should be investing in pioneering research like this to find free-market answers to obesity. If sugar really is the new tobacco, let’s not resort to excessive state meddling once again. Let’s instead harness the power of innovation and let our world-class scientific research institutions do the hard work for us.

Originally published here.

Facebook, Australia and the pitfalls of online regulation

“Facebook has re-friended Australia.” Those were the words of Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to a gaggle of reporters in Canberra this week, in an ever-so-slightly smug declaration of victory in the regulatory battle between his government and the embattled social media giant.

His statement came after Facebook, having kicked up an almighty storm – and generated a great deal of bad press for itself in the process – eventually gave in and backed down from its sudden ban of all news content for Australian users. It followed Google’s example and entered into negotiations with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, among others, begrudgingly agreeing to pay to host their content on its platform, as mandated by the new Australian law.

This situation is profoundly troubling. The core of the dispute is the new law spelling out how tech giants like Facebook and Google, which host external news links on their platforms, must negotiate with the providers of that content.

Anybody can see that the idea of government-mandated negotiation doesn’t make much logical sense. If two consenting parties have a mutually-beneficial agreement where one facilitates the sharing of the other’s content, where is the role of the government to step in and demand that money changes hands?

It’s not clear what problem the Australian Government believes is being solved here. It has intervened in the market arbitrarily, making one side very happy and the other very miserable. But to what end? Worryingly, this appears to be just the latest front in a troubling new trend of governments arbitrarily meddling in an industry where innovation and productivity are booming. Sadly, governments are often inclined to do this.

California, for instance, recently won the right in court to implement its harsh net neutrality rules, the first state to come close to replicating the ill-fated far-reaching Obama-era law. Meanwhile, the European Union has declared its intention to keep tabs on big tech with a raft of new policy ideas, including annual check-ins with the European Commission about what steps companies are taking to “tackle illegal and harmful content”.

There is no easy answer to the question of how we should go about regulating the online market. The UK Government is at something of a crossroads in this area. It is currently consulting on the parameters of its new Digital Markets Unit (DMU) with the existing Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

When considering the role of the DMU, the British Government would do well to learn from the mistakes of others from around the world and seek to prioritise the interests of consumers, rather than coming down rigidly on one side of the fence and cowing to the demands of one enormous lobbying operation or another, as the Australian Government appears to have done.

The DMU, in the words of its architects and proponents, will be “a pro-competition regime”, which will mean that “consumers will be given more choice and control over how their data is used and small businesses will be able to better promote their products online”. Those stated aims – making life easier for users and paving the way for the Steve Jobs of tomorrow – seem wholly positive.

But the Government briefing also says that the DMU will implement “a new statutory code of conduct” in order to “help rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms”. It is too early to say whether our Government is planning to go down the same road as Australia’s, but that rhetoric sounds ominous, to say the least.

There is certainly a vacancy for the DMU to fill, but the underdog it should be propping up is not Rupert Murdoch. There is a difficult balance to be struck between maintaining an environment where the existing tech giants are able to continue innovating and elevating our standard of living, while also fostering a truly competitive environment by removing obstacles for their smaller – but growing – competitors, along with new start-ups. That is the fine line the Government must tread.

Originally published here.

Dowden’s latest task? Regulating the internet. Here’s what Australia can teach us about that challenge.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden finds himself burdened with an almighty task: regulating the internet. His new ‘Digital Markets Unit’, set to form part of the existing Competitions and Markets Authority, will be the quango in charge of regulating the social media giants. Dowden, like the rest of us, is now trying to discern what can be learned by rummaging through the rubble left behind by the regulatory punch-up between Facebook and the Australian government over a new law forcing online platforms to pay news companies in order to host links to their content.

Google acquiesced immediately, agreeing to government-mandated negotiations with news producers. But Facebook looked ready to put up a fight, following through on its threat to axe all news content from its Australian services. It wasn’t long, though, before Mark Zuckerberg backed down, unblocked the Facebook pages of Australian newspapers and, through gritted teeth, agreed to set up a direct debit to Rupert Murdoch.

The drama down under has been met with a mixed response around the world, but it is broadly consistent with the trend of governments shifting towards more and more harmful and intrusive interference in the technology sector, directly undermining consumers’ interests and lining Murdoch’s pockets. The EU, for one, is keen to get stuck in, disregarding the status quo and unveiling its ambitious plan to keep tabs on the tech giants.

In the US, the situation is rather different. Some conspiracy theorists – the type who continue to believe that Donald Trump is the rightful president of the United States – like to allege that the infamous Section 230, the item of US legislation which effectively regulates social media there, was crafted in cahoots with big tech lobbyists as a favour to bigwigs at Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on. In reality, Section 230 was passed as part of the Communications Decency Act in 1996, long before any of those companies existed.

Wildly overhyped by many as a grand DC-Silicon Valley conspiracy to shut down the right’s online presence, Section 230 is actually very short and very simple. It is, in fact, just 26 words long: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Not only is this a good starting point from which to go about regulating the internet – it is the only workable starting point. If the opposite were true – if platforms were treated as publishers and held liable for the content posted by their users – competition would suffer immensely. Incumbent giants like Facebook would have no problem employing a small army of content moderators to insulate themselves, solidifying their position at the top of the food chain. Meanwhile, smaller companies – the Zuckerbergs of tomorrow – would be unable to keep up, resulting in a grinding halt to innovation and competition.

Another unintended consequence – a clear theme when it comes to undue government meddling in complex matters – would be that vibrant online spaces would quickly become unusable as companies scramble to moderate platforms to within an inch of their lives in order to inoculate themselves against legal peril.

Even with the protections currently in place, it is plain how awful platforms are at moderating content. There are thousands of examples of well-intentioned moderation gone wrong. In January, the Entrepreneurs Network’s Sam Dumitriu found himself plonked in Twitter jail for a tweet containing the words “vaccine” and “microchip” in an attempt to call out a NIMBY’s faulty logic. Abandoning the fundamental Section 230 provision would only make this problem much, much worse by forcing platforms to moderate much more aggressively than they already do.

Centralisation of policy in this area fails consistently whether it comes from governments or the private sector because it is necessarily arbitrary and prone to human error. When Facebook tried to block Australian news outlets, it also accidentally barred the UK-based output of Sky News and the Telegraph, both of which have Australian namesakes. State-sanctioned centralisation of policy, though, is all the more dangerous, especially now that governments seem content to tear up the rulebook and run riot over the norms of the industry almost at random, resulting in interventions which are both ineffectual and harmful.

The Australian intervention in the market is so arbitrary that it could easily have been the other way around: forcing News Corp to pay Facebook for the privilege of having its content shared freely by people all over the world. Perhaps the policy would even make more sense that way round. If someone was offering news outlets a promotional package with a reach comparable to Facebook’s usership, the value of that package on the ad market would be enormous.

Making people pay to have their links shared makes no sense at all. Never in the history of the internet has anybody had to pay to share a link. In fact, the way the internet works is precisely the opposite: individuals and companies regularly fork out large sums of money in order to put their links on more people’s screens.

If you’d said to a newspaper editor twenty years ago that they would soon have free access to virtual networks where worldwide promotion of their content would be powered by organic sharing, they would have leapt for joy. A regulator coming along and decreeing that the provider of that free service now owes money to the newspaper editor is patently ludicrous.

That is not to say, however, that there is no role for a regulator to play. But whether or not the Digital Markets Unit will manage to avoid the minefield of over-regulation remains to be seen. As things stand, there is a very real danger that we might slip down that road. Matt Hancock enthusiastically endorsed the Australian government’s approach, and Oliver Dowden has reportedly been chatting with his counterparts down under about this topic.

The humdrum of discourse over this policy area was already growing, but the Australia-Facebook debacle has ignited it. The stars have aligned such that 2021 is the long-awaited point when the world’s governments finally attempt to reckon with the tech behemoths. From the US to Brussels, from Australia to the Baltics, the amount of attention being paid to this issue is booming.

As UK government policy begins to take shape, expect to see fronts forming between different factions within the Conservative Party on this issue. When it comes to material consequences in Britain, it is not yet clear what all this will mean. The Digital Markets Unit could yet be a hero or a villain.

Originally published here.

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